Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988


Copyright © 1988 by the author(s).


As professionals working in museum and academic settings, many of you have probably found yourselves feeling at times like "poor cousins" -- textiles simply do not garner the same prestige as other types of artifacts and art forms. I now find myself in a situation where I feel like an even poorer cousin: although I am involved with textiles of all kinds, I find myself particularly fascinated or compelled by a type of textile-related artifact that is rarely considered seriously, even by textile historians. I am speaking of fancywork, specifically of small items such as tidies, wallpockets, sewing cases, flowerpot covers, and penwipers. Such items continue to engage time and attention, even today, but were especially prevalent in the nineteenth century. Instructions for fancywork filled the pages of women's magazines and manuals, and "fancy fairs," where the items were sold for fundraising purposes, were ubiquitous and profitable events. Fancywork once filled the Victorian parlor and boudoir, and fills the shelves of our museums today. The items are frequently dismissed as "silly little things" and "useless" time fillers -- Geoffrey Warren, author of A Stitch in Time, even pronounced them a waste of intelligence and a sign of limited imagination (p.16). Such contemporary judgements preclude real analysis, however, and do not take the items on their own terms. These sewn and stitched objects remain as nonverbal "documents" that tell us about the reality of the Victorian women who made them, and we must learn to read their expressive story.

I will return to the objects themselves momentarily, but wish to begin with a consideration of terminology. No satisfactory definition of fancywork is available. Present-day dictionaries refer to it simply as decorative or ornamental needlework -- it is contrasted with plain work — but there is no indication of boundary, no point where plain becomes fancy, and no delineation of technique or media. Today fancywork is often thought of as embroidery, knitting and crochet, but in nineteenth century usage the term was inclusive, and shell, wax, leather and even pine cone work was referred to the same way.

Fancywork is an interesting term, one which is full of inherent contradictions, and captures the ambivalent Victorian attitude toward women and work. Women did of course work in actuality, but given the strong distinction and separation between the outside world of work and the inside world of the home, women were by definition not "workers." Most of their tasks carried other names, but light, ornamental and non-pecuniary efforts — those that involved cloth and similar materials -- were dubbed needlework or fancywork.' Embroidery sections in the periodicals were called "work sections," "work departments," or "work baskets." "Women's work" displays at county fairs were filled with needlework rather than vegetables or other products of agricultural labor. The "fancy" part of the term, however, implies almost the opposite of work. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a fancy is a fantasy or mental conception; it is synonymous with imagination. It is also a whim, a supposition resting on no solid ground; an entertainment; an invention; or something bred or manipulated into a more beautiful form (pp. 60-62).